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Buckminster Fuller in the Hands of Alice Wilson

By Wayne Alan Brenner

APRIL 3, 2000:  I have no idea what Alice Wilson looks like, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that this is probably her exiting the car that just pulled into the parking lot in front of the Starbucks where I'm supposed to meet her. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, because Wilson is the former artistic director of Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and she's recently finished writing a one-man show to be produced there, and the show is about Buckminster Fuller, the man who invented the geodesic dome, and the woman exiting the car is carrying two complex, multicolored sphere-frames that look exactly like something Bucky would have designed for his grandkids. Who else would be toting such perfect props to a chain-store cafe in the middle of Austin? "To attack this project," says Wilson in the coffeehouse, "to try and comprehend what Bucky was saying and doing with his life ... a lot of people, if they're familiar with Bucky at all, they just laugh when they hear about it. It's a huge project."

What she's brought with her is a tensegrity sphere and a Hoberman sphere, the sort of gosh-wow models of structural engineering you can buy at toy stores with even a partial scientific bent. Well, okay, since the Hoberman item is multifaceted, it's really an icosadodecahedron; and maybe the tensegrity thing is, too; but let's not get too technical here.

"Research is my favorite way of working," says Wilson, grinning. She looks a bit elfin, this 17-year veteran of Zach Scott, with a muted starburst of blond hair and eyes that sparkle with more charm than any dozen quarks. "I like to read and read and read until, finally, I feel like I'm peering out over this incredible mound of information, and I reach this place where I'm saturated, where I can't take in another factoid without writing something. So I start writing. And if I need to do more research, I will, but I have a pretty good handle on things from that point on."

Writing Bucky isn't the first time Wilson has tackled the human side of Big Science. Back in 1990, she directed Breaking the Code, a play based on Andrew Hodges' biography of Alan Turing, the cryptographer who cracked the German Enigma code in World War II.

"Breaking the Code prepared me for doing Bucky, because, in order to direct that play, I had to totally immerse myself in math -- which is not my strong suit. I spent a long time trying to understand the processes that Turing, a genius, went through to come to his revelations, so that I could translate that emotional state into the words that were in the play. And that kind of work was very similar to the kind of work that had to happen with Bucky, because Buckminster Fuller was a thinker in so many different areas, and I needed to understand what it felt like to come to the realizations that he had."

Wilson pauses to pat the tensegrity sphere and sip her herbal tea. Well, okay, since the beverage isn't based on leaves from the actual tea plant, it's really an infusion; but let's not get too technical here.

"It's been a year and a half of bliss, really," says Wilson, between sips. "Bliss and challenge," she says. "Bucky's thought processes were very complex. He used to say that he didn't care if people didn't understand him ... as long as they didn't misunderstand him. He preferred to have people going away shaking their heads and not knowing what he'd meant than to have them going away with a wrong or simplistic idea of what he'd said. The assimilation of his ideas in the world is hindered somewhat because he chose to be challenging and have people who finally 'got it,' get it correctly, rather than be easy. And it is challenging. He used very complicated sentences in explaining: He has one sentence that goes on for 24 pages. And he coined a lot of his own terms. It's not an easy read."

"Tensegrity" is a word Bucky coined to describe the way a system can maintain its integrity through tension. I imagine it's also a ridiculously apt metaphor for running a theatre company. I don't mention this thought to Alice Wilson, though; she was Zach Scott's artistic director for almost a decade, she's an award-winning playwright, she oversaw the production of, or actually directed, enough big shows to boggle the most jaded mind; there's no way this metaphor has escaped her, especially not if she's been able to capture Bucky at all. And she has captured him; it's obvious from the way she speaks of the man: easily, casually, relating so much personal information and scientific data that it's as if she'd been shadowing him throughout most of his life.

"Bucky believed that, as human beings, we were meant to be comprehensivists and not specialists," Wilson relates. "He felt that specialization was a horrible mistake, a mistake that had been perpetrated on the human race by -- well -- by the Harvard Business School, actually, when it was first set up. All the super-capitalists went to the Business School, and they didn't want to produce people who'd be able to take over their businesses, they wanted someone who understood just accounting, and someone who understood just marketing, and so on, so that's how they set up the degree plans at the major universities they funded. So, in Bucky's view, that's how this particular kind of specialization began."

I take a sip of my white chocolate mocha, pondering this, and I wonder if the mocha would taste so delicious if the guy behind the counter hadn't specialized in coffee-based beverage prep. And a person who knows only accounting, that person's what? Not much good?

"Human beings are comprehensive," says Wilson. "And Bucky believed that only by going across disciplines could we solve the problems of the world. Yes, we do have to burrow in and dig deep into the areas that we love the most or have the most talent for. But at the same time, we have to keep an eye on the wider, bigger picture. Looking at the biggest possible picture was one of his major doctrines -- which is a simplistic way of talking about synergy. Bucky said that synergy meant that two plus two doesn't always equal four. That there's some dynamic that goes on between pieces of things that are combined in new ways, a dynamic greater than you can imagine. That's one of the concepts brought out in the play, and I think it's one of his major contributions to the way we look at the world. It basically says, 'You can't make assumptions.'"

Which is why I don't want to assume, especially at this point, that Wilson simply up and decided to write this particular play.

"Brad Armstrong commissioned it," she tells me. "He's the actor in the play. He got the idea to do a one-man show based on Bucky's life, and he was talking about it with a mutual friend of ours, Elota Patton, and Elota said, 'Well, Alice is the one to do this.' And when he mentioned it to me, I think I committed on the spot. It was so easy. I just knew, when he said it, that this is what I wanted to do next."

So here's this actor, who's been plying his trade for years, and then he ...

"This is the elephant in the living room of our interview," says Wilson, laughing."Because Brad hasn't been acting. So for him to have chosen to do a one-man show, it might seem like hubris. And for me to write it, a piece of this scope -- it was hubris for both of us."

"He hasn't been acting?" I can feel confusion lowering my brow. "Because he used to a lot? But now he's been, like, retired for a while?"

Wilson shakes her head, eyes a-glimmer. "He acted as a young man, right before he went into college. But he got discouraged from doing it -- by his dad: His dad told him he was terrible. He had terrific reviews, you know, but his dad told him he was awful, and he believed his dad. So he changed his major and went on to become a lawyer -- a trial lawyer. And anyone who's familiar with that knows that there's a lot of presentation skill that goes into being a good trial lawyer -- although Brad would never equate that with acting. Later, after he'd become an entrepreneur, after he'd become a partner in the Blue Whale Moving Company, he took a sort of personal empowerment course through The Forum, and the course talked about being unstoppable. He was turning 40, and he looked back at his life, and he realized that there was a point where he had been stopped. And he decided that it was time to be the actor he'd wanted to be when he was younger. So he just sort of ... climbed up to the high board."

I have no idea what Brad Armstrong looks like, but I can picture him on that high board, divested of suit and tie, stripped down to a pair of Brooks Brothers shorts, ready to perform a long-deferred swan dive into the staged life of The Great Comprehensivist.

"I've been impressed," says Wilson. "Brad had the presence of mind and the humility to say that, although he really thought it was time for a play about Buckminster Fuller, and he wanted to perform it, that if we got into it a little way and he wasn't right for the role, he would step down. He'd just step down, he said, and we'd find an actor who had the experience to do it. But I've found that Brad's passion for Bucky, and his passion for learning, is remarkable. He's just plunged himself into being an actor, and working at it, and doing everything necessary to take on this very large, complicated role. I've been really impressed."

I'm impressed, too, sitting here inside this upscale java joint. By Wilson's theatrical résumé, of course, and by the consideration and skill she's bringing to the project. But especially by the sheer enthusiasm sparking from her at a -- as Bucky himself might have put it -- dynamic maximum. There are so many details going into this production of Alice Wilson's latest work, a lot of cross-disciplinary interchanges happening here, and I'm charged up now, too, and looking forward to seeing how the sum of its parts relates to the whole.

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